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She was born in a Southern town, where the aquatic bloomed and paddy sprouted. But all at once they were shoveled, and replaced by skyscrapers. Everyday, she took her nanny’s hand and went to school through 10 minutes of wind. The subtropical land brought her up early. So at six, she tried to love the boy next door. She looked up and told her mother, then through the kindergarten crowd, she ran and threw herself towards him. And she was pulled away.
“What are you doing? Why aren’t you acting like a girl!”
“A girl.” Many years later she did a photo search. Faces popped up in the search window. All of them with skin fair as snow; all of them coy, black-haired Asian girls. Some lowered their eyes, some looked at the camera, all were butterflies with converged wings. Why is it that loving someone makes one not a girl? How come a girl can be “un-girl-like”? Back then she was yet to comprehend the hidden expectations under that one syllable. So, with all other nutrients, she swallowed those interrogations into her blood and vein. And she jointed, like bamboo.
But she ceased to grow at eleven. The kind of pain she had read in novels, the elusive and intangible pain that swings from heightening, became an ocean in the desert. She who is 5 feet is stuck with playing this endearing character. Or perhaps a more suitable wording would be willingly. She plays it willingly. After-all, what can she do? She has got to act like a girl, no? It was also the same time when the TV started broadcasting animations starring magical teenage girls, the same animations that opened curtains to new phases of life. As she walked through the drapes, the new world glistened and she began learning a new language. “Onnarashii,” she uttered the words. “Kawaii……Kira Kira……” this new language has similar symbols. And translations after translations, her confusion was cleared-- girls are delicate and radiant, they bring power through a blink of the eyes.
At thirteen, her crush and her kissed at anime-con. She tipped her toes, but murky disturbance lurked inside her. Why would he like me? ‘Because Yasmine is the cutest of all,’ he said. Cute… A while back, she travelled through the city and spent all her hard-saved allowances on a bubble skirt that resembles a magical girl’s uniform, specially for this date. The free-size dress seemed baggy on her. With each hop, her dress fluctuated. After their light kiss the boy held her close, as if to compress her clothes onto her; his clothes were moist with nervousness, did he want to shrink her even more? But she was tiny enough. Amongst the crowd, two eyes gleamed. They averted each other because of the butterflies in the room, and bounced off at each encounter.
In Japanese TV shows, girls would give chocolate to whom they considered their life’s core. They would hide in the corner of a staircase, staging a run-into, then bring out the little ribbon-wrapped box from her back and offer it with both hands. Yasmine watched that clip over and over. Then she found a similar clip, and watched that clip over and over. ‘There isn’t a chance like that in real life!’ she thought. Her lover was a bit too modest, she wasn’t even sure if he would be glad receiving a gift. Still, on Christmas Eve, she went to the supermarket for some cocoa fat. Not having the proper molds, she poured the melting brown liquid into a jello box and refrigerated them. She took the heart-shaped boxes out in a few hours, turned them around, and knocked the chocolate out. She put her hearts hurriedly into a gift box, ready to bring it to school the next day. At the same time, she saw a TV show on idols’ private wear. What to wear to the Christmas Bonenkai? What to wear to sea, with the senior she was infatuated with? What to wear to the amusement park with friends? She couldn’t help but laugh seeing the girls walking wobbly, pompously on TV. She wanted to ignite herself, to love someone, to have someone create the illusion of falling in love, to create the illusion of being loved!
Illusion -- The boy tore the packaging, gloating over the gazes from other boys, and split the chocolate among them. That was her sentiments carefully packaged under the cloak of night! The proof of her love, the proof of not having his love in return… But, did she make the chocolate because she was in love with him, or with the version of herself, who fell in love? In fact, she didn’t know if he liked chocolate, it was just that those handmade hearts carried all her fantasies of love. She went home, and watched a variety show on the small screen in her room. Girl’s Kitchen -- pretending to cook for your lover. Pretend. Because idols are forbidden to date. Were the girls, prohibited from feeling affection in their prime age, satisfied with the dream of love they themselve conjured up? Is support from fans enough? Is their dream their lover? She read somewhere online saying that a fan supporting an idol is to project one’s unfulfilled dreams onto these flourishing girls. And she wondered if she could bring such a power to people as well. Afterall it all sounded too tempting and effortless, the love not returned from the boy could be gained from so many others.
She is selfless, she wanted to burn herself to render people happiness; but in expecting immense love in return, she is overly naïve. For we don’t necessarily reap what we sow. At eighteen she came to Tokyo. She said she wanted to go to a language school and then university. But in fact, those were just pretexts for her to live her idol dream, to be the girliest of girls. Her tender naïtivity cocooned her fortitude so intensely as if a clam holding on to its sand. But she didn’t want to produce pearls, she wanted to smash herself and rise from the ashes, so the hardness inside her would be released. Melt into water! But before melting into water, a bit of suffering is indispensable. In the distanced snowing mountains, I imagined her, a fragile girl coming to Tokyo, becoming the pronoun of boyish. How unsettling it must have been for her! Could she tell her parents? I imagined her writing her first cover letter with her green Japanese. For birth place, she put down “Chūgoku”. Then during an interview, she would spend time to explain how it’s not a barren island in the middle of Japan, but a vast land from the East. Age, eighteen — a bit old. But that’s alright, she still had a few years left. I imagined her in front of the door of a discount store named Don Quixote, pressing seven in the elevator, seeing girls she would only see on TV appear in front of her; I imagined her facing flirtatious grins from producers, her hands hid behind her, rubbing the edge of her cloth. "Applying for college, huh? How determined... Is your academic that important to you?" I imagined her going through the first winter in her life, dresses in her stage costume, dancing in the never-before-seen wind and snow; imagined her queueing with her younger teammate for delicious crepes; imagined her learning to put her past in her palms, lifting them up and scattering them into the sky, just to bring joy to the screaming crowd who waved glow sticks under the stage.
And indeed, these splintered recollections were all she remembered. The memories of rehearsing and preparing for the stage were vague for her. The unaccustomed instructions from her childhood reoccurred. “Be shy, look at the camera,” “Engage with the audiences!” Apart from that, there’s the teaching from the part-time dance teacher: protect your skins and eyes attentively. “Don’t stare too long at your computers and smart-phones, or that gleam in your eyes will go away.”
In fact, they didn’t spend much time rehearsing, the main focus was still learning to please the audiences. Once she was free, she would stream videos on her phone, trying to seek for a universal method of giving and showing love, so that she wouldn’t scare off fans with her passion when they met. Most of the videos were from the perspective of an audience, nobody could tell her how to gain popularity. All she had was the obvious “idols worked hard” in documentaries. ‘Of course they worked hard!’ she thought to herself, agitated, as thought she was back in the confusion she had being in love. How to be loved appropriately, how to properly imply everyone to pay more attention to her without seeming like she was begging or desperate. But at this moment, she was much more sober. She knew she was only weaving a wonderland, a fantasy where she loves somebody. In that system, all hard work is paid off.
After their first performance, she hung her stage costume on the back of a chair in their dressing room. Her hair soaked with sweat, sticking on the side of her cheeks. When she undresses, she smelt the odor of girls’ sweat. Hers and others’, it was fishy. Who did this dress belong to? I assume she didn’t know whose life she inherited. Fans are not inheritable. Audiences may become fans, and then they’d become Gods, Gods who support the so-called idols . For the Gods, her teammates and her stood in a circle and chanted, “grateful, humble, shining! We are… Shuengo Buppan！”
Their first music video was about a fan’s first signing event. The fan in the script was unsettled, and so was she. Worrying the camera may put pounds on her. The other Japanese girls seemed to be handling it with much ease, they were accustomed to putting their charisma on display in front of a camera. “How am I gonna compete with that...” she couldn’t help but thought, “Us Chinese girls have never learned how to please people.” When she was called out for her close-up, she could not, for the life of her, figure out how to smile naturally and genuinely. Yet she was complimented by the photographer, “Very shy, great! It’d remind people of their puppy love.” She wanted to smile, but she didn’t dare -- maybe only the experienced can better create the illusion of dating.
Performances, live streams, handshake events, signing events, shooting for promotion material, fans came and went. Day in, day out. At first, most people went to her during the handshake events. They all wanted to see the difference between Chinese girls and Japanese girls. But as the time went on, the waiting line to meet with her teammates got longer. She thought maybe it was because Japanese girls are more gentle, or it was just that the sharp ice in her character had yet to melt into water. She started pleasing people consciously: smile with crescent eyes, hold and tickle the palm of fans even when she didn’t know them, and grab them tight. If someone older came, put up a girl-child front. And repeating, “Oh, good,” “Oh, yes,” and “Oh, remember to come next time--” is an all-powerful spell every idol knew by heart.
She was swamped by tenderness seeing so many people coming and going in night buses, just for their brief encounter. At night, she occupied herself with notes-writing: I am so very glad to have met you today, hope we’ll have more time to talk! Thanks to her training in China, her Kanas and Kanjis were all neat. She used to be blue about the lack of attention and compliments. But now, every time she hands over the notes, she could receive genuine praise from fans. This provided a kind of vindictive thrill for her. Her teammates wrote similar notes as well, but the fact that her handwriting looked better was enough to make her feel rather superior to them. It seems with more fans and popularity, her income would relatively increase as well. The lucky thing was that she came from a well-off family, so there was no need for her to rack her brain and entertain people so they’d provide for her. Yet on the flip side, that gave her a fallback.
That day, her past lover came to Tokyo. Rationally, she shouldn’t have met with him. What if her fans saw? ‘Would they still support me?’ But she went to the shopping street with him nonetheless. The sides of the streets were piled with snow, specks of string lights were wrapped onto the branches on the sidewalks. If he and she were one centimeter further from each other, the lights wouldn’t be visible. Through the corps of light and the scent of the cold, dry winter, they marched in silence. At last, he couldn’t help but turn, tring to ask for a kiss. To which she shook her head, “I’m sorry… we might get caught.” For far too many times, she had googled her name with utmost alertness, fearing for a negative opinion on her. She saw when an idol was caught dating. Soon after the exposure, pictures of burning photos and CDs of that idol flooded anonymous forums. It was probably some frantic supporter who was too depressed from losing their so-believed one and only love, that he felt the urge to destroy all that was linked to her. Thinking of this made her repulse the idea of seeing her face on a burning picture even more.
The next day during their Christmas performance, she thought of the boy’s approaching lips. A tingle of mixed shame and excitement traveled down her spine. The dance moves coded in her froze. She missed her step on the stage and landed on her knee. She pushed her right palm against the floor, trying to pull herself up. But instead she stumbled, and fell again. The light manager was sharp enough to turn off a few lights and trapped her in darkness, struggling to get away. It hurt. But nothing hurt as much as that moment of trance. Her questions were still unresolved when she was hospitalized. Too many pending answers. What did the boy want? What did she want? She drifted across the sea to live her idol dream, and she intended to follow the no-dating rule, why was she suddenly bewitched?
She wasn’t hurt too badly, and insisted on leaving after one day of inward observation because she wanted to be on the stage for their New Year’s performances. Her manager called her repeatedly to stop her, “Get more rest, what if there are unsuspected wounds?” She didn’t want to spend these supposed happiest moments before New Year in solitude, yet there was still an absent member on the performance schedule next week.
She said she hadn’t had such a long break in a long time. She couldn’t go out and she couldn’t dance. She read the books she had read back in China, played sudoku, and laid down in isolation. She didn’t even let the boy pay a visit. She was exasperated, “It was glad seeing you, but you better forget what happened last time. Please do not interfere with my career and my life.”
“Oh c’mon, you're twenty-two. That’s not young anymore.”
She pretended to not have heard his attack towards the idol system. Or she was unable to process the more vicious part of his word being busy dealing with the crushing fact that -- someone just told her, “you’re old,” for the first time. She told herself, “the world is such a big place, twenty two is not old.” But at the same time she started to realize the only relation she has with the world was to sing, dance, and be prettier and prettier. I think, if all idols dissociate with that environment ever so briefly, they would realize how absurd the system was. But when she was telling me all these, I couldn’t bring myself to say the word ‘absurd’ to her. But I believed that she knew it, deep in her heart.
She was just exhausted before she could turn to the “absurd” page in her dictionary.
Informing her younger teammates with her aggranged departure, they signed in disbelief, bit their lips and teared up. She asked them about their plan on leaving the group. But they said that they liked the entertainment industry, and wanted to wait for a chance at a bigger stage. So it was a springboard all along. The love we have given to our fans, they were bridges and springboards that led to other places all along.
She stood under the spotlight, like all those before her, announcing her “graduation” as if it were a big deal. The audiences pretended to feel sorrow too. They all knew it was a show. Soon, all would be gone. The spotlights will focus on someone younger, and she wanted to visit a broader land than this island and the mainland. Maybe the vastness was in her imagination. I arrived at this land about the same time as she, and I, too, think that’s just her imagination.Though it is called a city of immigrants, New York was alien for the both of us. On this not so wide road, in some sense, narrow, even, there aren’t any girls, only women. Women who were statuesque, slender, and sylphlike; women who step on heels and march down the subway like warriors.
After her twelve-hour flight, after her departure from JFK international airport, a new world revealed itself in front of her. For quite a while she didn’t know who she belonged with. She was clearly too delicate for Chinese girls, but to seek belonging from the Japanese group seemed outlandish. So she returned to her observer state, silent and keen. She threw herself in the yellow subway, letting the crowd above squeeze her; she put herself on benches on sidewalks, seeing more dogs walk by than she had seen in China and Japan.
3:42pm. I had just got my Japan Visa and was leaving the embassy. And there she was, on the flooded Lexington Avenue. The viber on her beige mohair sweater and the velvet on her cheeks stood together under the autumn sun. I couldn’t help accosting. Hi, do you need help?
Certainly I wasn’t that keen on helping her. It was only a pretext to fetch her into my life. For seeing the naïtivity she beamed and her hanging long hair, she reminded me of the ideal I held for myself a long time ago. She replied timidly in her rusted English, a result of her abandonment of the language since 18, “No, thank you.” I felt red all over, as though my impure intention was spotted. Disturbed, I asked in Japanese, “Are you sure?” To my ears, the words were the sounds of me latching onto the last driftwood in a howling stream. But apparently, she didn’t feel the same. She was, dare I say, touched. Not before long, the two little girls were sitting together in a nearby dessert house.
We shared our lives with each other briefly. The sorrows and confusions as little girls, the reasons for our joining and not joining idol groups, ways to mingle with this grotesque creature we call NYC… I tried to point her to an unorthodox road. It didn’t seem forbidden to explore love and the indulgence apart from love in a vehement manner. But she shook her head. When I tried to elaborate, she seemed to be sulking.
Her unyielding determination to love appeared to be rebellious in the midst of New York, like a martyr extinguishing into a tequila sea after a flare. Before we separate, I held her door habitually while my right hand clicked ‘follow’ on the Instagram account she had left me. We walked into the stream of cars and hastily waved our goodbyes under the setting sun. One in a while, she would post pictures of herself. But apart from that, there wasn’t any other news.